Flash Fiction: When Less Is More

Recently, at the urging of a colleague, I have been dabbling in flash fiction. If you're not sure what flash fiction is—I wasn't when I started—it is a very brief form of short story ranging from 1,000 words to as few as 150 words. Some people also call it sudden fiction, drabbles, nano fiction, or just short-short stories.

Don't confuse flash fiction with an excerpt, such as a scene from a larger work. Flash fiction has a fully developed plot with a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes, however, the reader needs to read between the lines to find those elements. Think of this nano story, the authorship of which is often attributed (perhaps erroneously) to Ernest Hemingway: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn."

Hemingway, of course, honed his craft writing vignettes of only a few hundred words. These made up the content of his first published book, in our times. Anton Chekhov, O. Henry, Franz Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Philip K. Dick also were practitioners of this form of short story.

Back in college, being a Hemingway devotee, I practiced writing vignettes just as Papa did. Back then, it was just for practice. I never imagined there was a market for such brief stories. Maybe there wasn't back then. There certainly is now.

Today there are numerous markets for flash fiction. Most science fiction publications feature flash fiction, and some online venues—such as Flash Fiction Online and Flash Fiction Magazine—specialize in it. In the mystery field, there are online markets like Shotgun Honey, The Molotov Cocktail, and Flash Bang Mysteries. There's even a National Flash Fiction Day in the UK.

When my colleague urged me to try my hand at flash fiction, I took it as a challenge. I've written full-length novels, a novella, and longish short stories as seen in my collection Duty. I wanted to see if I could go in the opposite direction and write something short and tight. I wanted to see how lean a story I could compose, hoping it would improve the writing of my larger works.

My first attempt at flash fiction came when I heard about a publisher seeking submissions for an anthology of weird sea stories. The story I wrote—inspired by the true story of a long lost ship that keeps reappearing every few years—came to just under 1,000 words. The next two—one about a freelance assassin's last job, the other about a workplace shooting—both came to just over 300 words each.

Whether these short pieces of fiction sell is not important. The act of writing them tight, then editing and cutting them to be even tighter, was a wonderful writing exercise. I'm looking forward to the challenge of trying my hand at more flash fiction in other genres.

If you want to learn more about writing flash fiction, check out David Gaffney's piece in The Guardian or Tara Laskowski's article at Something Is Going to Happen.